Amherst Magazine

What Did Zeke Emanuel’s Mother Put in the Cereal?

Reviewed by Paul Statt ’78

[Memoir] Why write a memoir? Ezekiel J. (“Zeke”) Emanuel ’79 suggests a reason for his, Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family:

“For years,” he writes, “I had been jotting down random stories and memories I wanted to share with my children.” As family lore, Brothers Emanuel excels. It’s funny and poignant, a ’60s childhood starring three little rascals who try their parents’ patience with their pugnacious pranks. Zeke, the oldest, was studious and bossy but got into plenty of mischief. So did Rahm, who became mayor of Chicago, the city where they grew up, although he was “quiet and observant.” Baby Ari, now a fabulously successful Hollywood mogul, the model for the abrasive Ari Gold on HBO’s Entourage, was “forceful, rambunctious, highly social and hyperactive.”

Zeke Emanuel '79Zeke Emanuel '79, brother of Rahm and Ari

Perhaps the leading American bioethicist, Zeke is vice provost for global initiatives and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He served in the Obama White House and chaired the bioethics department at the National Institutes of Health. But this is not an intellectual autobiography.

Neither is it a tell-all political or celebrity memoir, although it does expose some childhood mayhem. There was vociferous arguing around the Emanuel dinner table, fisticuffs with neighborhood kids and scrapes with teachers and police, all happening amid the social and political upheavals of the ’60s. The boys’ mother was an early and active supporter of labor and urban civil rights. The issues of the day were their daily bread.

A revealing chapter in his education and this book comes when Zeke, after his bar mitzvah, takes up study of the Pirkei Avot, a compilation of Jewish ethical teachings and maxims. The story of the way he learned to understand his family’s ethical foundation is best understood by reading it, but he summarizes it neatly: “Somehow, we all feel obligated to do good.”

We hear less about Emanuel’s education at Amherst, where he wasn’t all that happy. One of his college buddies meets Emanuel’s mother, of whom the friend recalls, “She always seemed a tiny bit dangerous.”

Dangerous and fascinating: Marsha Emanuel emerges from Brothers Emanuel as the character you wish had a bigger role. “My mother seemed a sort of expert nurturer, a woman who could make any child feel safe, secure, and valued,” Emanuel writes. “She was a highly intelligent, energetic, and motivated woman who was denied other careers, and motherhood was her profession. At the time it was a logical and productive way to channel her energies. I suspect that millions of other mothers in these pre-women’s-liberation days did the same.”

That passage’s uncritical acceptance of early-’60s sexism begs for deeper reflection. Marsha suffered “emotional storms,” as Zeke recalls them, and “tempestuous moods.” Why so moody? An intelligent, educated woman gives up career for family, has to explain to others that her political activism is not harmful to the children and then sits glumly in the station wagon on family vacations. Her problem, you might say, has no name, except that Betty Friedan exposed it in 1963 as “the problem that has no name.”

The boys also suffer under uncritical gender essentialism. Their angry and sometimes violent acts are praised. “[W]hen problems arose we did not have many ways to discuss them deeply. … So early on we internalized the notion that it was easier to give someone a kiss or a hug or a punch than to struggle to elucidate the nuances of our private feelings and emotions.” Emanuel says this is a “paradox” in a family that liked to talk so much. But might the boys’ violence have some relation to their mother’s silence?

Emanuel also suggests a second reason for writing a memoir:  to answer “the cereal question.” The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once begged him to introduce her to his mother, “to find out what she put in the cereal.”  

Brothers Emanuel provides a sort of answer: travel, love and laughter, mixed with Jewish social gospel. If this is unsatisfying as a “how-to” guide for perplexed parents, Emanuel eloquently concludes that he is the product of an improvisatory riff of “jazz parenting.” That explanation works, especially if you believe what Louis Armstrong said when asked to define jazz: “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”

As Emanuel writes of his childhood, “I saw that a man’s work was important, that he must pursue it tirelessly, and that it might require certain sacrifices.” I learned to write at the same time and place as Zeke Emanuel did; I’m sure that by “man” he means “person.” The person whose work and sacrifices I want to hear more about is Marsha (Smulevitz) Emanuel, the mother of three remarkable boys, whose tantalizing tale remains to be told. k

Statt is a communications consultant in Philadelphia.